Some local producers of gluten-free foods are raising the bar on breads and baked goods. And consumers fueling this rising health trend are the beneficiaries of more local selections, better quality and less fear of inadvertently being exposed to the wheat products that trigger their symptoms.
Starting this summer, sufferers of celiac disease and anyone allergic or sensitive to wheat have been able to indulge with impunity at the Rogue Valley's first gluten-free bakery, Gia's, in Phoenix. They can walk into grocery stores and buy gluten-free bread produced locally by Silly Zak's, which is receiving rave reviews for its quality. And they can even eat sandwiches made with gluten-free bread at Great Harvest Bread Co. in Medford.
The local gluten-free market seems to be growing up.
Gia's owner Jan Thorsell enrolled at San Francisco Baking Institute to bone up not just on basic cookies, muffins and bars but more impressive pastries, such as cream puffs, eclairs, Madeleines and financiers. The 60-year-old says before opening Gia's in July, she hadn't patronized a bakery in 30 years since her diagnosis of celiac disease, a life-threatening autoimmune reaction to the natural protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
Gia's new, certified, commercial kitchen in Phoenix has never been exposed to glutenous flours and, as long as Thorsell is at the helm, it never will. Confident that her products taste just as good as counterparts containing gluten, Thorsell keeps Gia's stocked with plenty of free samples.
"I'd actually been wondering why there wasn't something like that available in the area," says customer Kathy Hathaway of Medford. "Maybe she could add pies."
Still adding to its original "gluten-less" bread, Great Harvest Bread Co. has plans to serve it for lunch. Demand for sandwiches with the seedy, buckwheat and brown rice slices grows every week at the Medford bakery, which moved to a larger building and started lunch service in June, says co-owner Dan Allen. This spring, the bakery also devised a gluten-less version of its popular berry scone with rice flour, tapioca flour and yogurt.
Great Harvest uses the term "gluten-less" because the bakery primarily uses wheat flour — even milling its own. But while the original gluten-less and cinnamon-chip loaves are mixed as far as possible from other breads, then baked in sterile, disposable pans, there remains a small chance of gluten from other flours contaminating them, says Allen.
The same risk requires Great Harvest to refine its sandwich-making process to avoid contact with surfaces and utensils that touched other breads.
Despite its price tag of $8.95 per loaf, gluten-less bread has put Great Harvest's spelt bread on the ropes, says Allen. Calls for spelt, a wheat alternative that contains gluten, have become so few that Allen is contemplating curtailing its production and replacing it with another run of gluten-less, which sells at the rate of 40 to 50 loaves per week.
Packaging hundreds of truly gluten-free loaves per day, Medford baker Dan La Fond, says Allen, made a "smart move."
Amid dozens of gluten-free brands of bread, La Fond devised a unique, frozen product that still has no comparable competition locally or nationwide. His Silly Zak's bakery made its first delivery to Ashland's Shop 'N' Kart in April. It's available at 14 other stores in nine cities between Klamath Falls, Roseburg and Ashland for a price of $4.99 to $5.99 per loaf, says La Fond.
Silly Zak's forms raw dough in disposable, aluminum pans for baking at home. Customers have posted plenty of praise on Silly Zak's website, even swearing off other gluten-free breads. The recipe combines cornstarch, tapioca flour, fava and garbanzo bean flours, sorghum flour, flaxseeds, almonds, eggs and xanthan gum, among other ingredients.
"Gluten-free dough is like a batter," says La Fond. "It's not like a traditional bread dough."
While there are plenty of boxed, gluten-free bread mixes on the market, cooks still have to add yeast, eggs and other wet ingredients, says La Fond. At the other end of the spectrum, many gluten-free breads are stocked already baked in grocers' freezer sections, but the loaves tend to be small, and the bread is often dry. Silly Zak's, however, looks, acts and tastes like real bread.
"Gluten-free dough is not an easy thing to work with," he says.
La Fond works his with industrial equipment that can handle heightened production when Silly Zak's achieves nationwide distribution. The former owner of Medford's Deli Down says he's fielding sales inquiries from Los Angeles and Vancouver, Wash. At local grocers' behest, Silly Zak's bakes some loaves to sell fresh at a few stores, along with its cinnamon squares, a recipe contributed by Betty Lake.
The 61-year-old Central Point resident made a name for herself with gluten-free cinnamon rolls she sold at farmers markets for several years. As Lake's baking caught on, she mailed gluten-free bread and other goods to customers across the West. But she couldn't maintain such a hectic pace and abandoned her business in early 2009.
"I tried to grow big but didn't know how," says Lake.
Earlier this year, La Fond's business partner, Jeff Wilson, asked Lake whether she would help develop Silly Zak's recipes. When she isn't working on more thaw-bake-and-serve products, such as dinner rolls and cookies, Lake mans the bakery's booth at Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Markets. It's apparent after her absence of just two years, says Lake, that celiac disease is no longer a novelty to the average customer, nor gluten-free dismissed as another fad.
"A lot of people are deciding to eat that way just because they think it's healthier," says Lake. "I sell out of almost everything every market.
"I think it's the one thing that's really growing in this economy."